After 402 days of waiting, months of lockdown and weeks of quarantine, Argentina returned to the Test arena and made history, defeating the All Blacks 25-15 in a game that will be remembered for years to come.
Written off by everyone in the rugby community, the Pumas headed to Bankwest Stadium anticipating a mauling from a wounded All Blacks side who were determined to bounce back from their shock loss to the Wallabies only a week earlier.
It looked ominous for Argentina heading into the match. Ian Foster named his strongest side — the same team that made easy work of the Wallabies just two weeks earlier up the road at ANZ Stadium — while some of the Pumas top players had only joined the squad following quarantine two weeks ago.
Sparks were flying from the early minutes. Argentina came into the game full of passion after such a long break and clearly had a plan — get into the All Blacks faces, get niggly and stop New Zealand from ever finding their rhythm. And they executed to perfection.
They hassled the All Blacks at the breakdown, slowing down the ball and forced them onto the back foot on every occasion. Their defence within their own 22 was sensational, regularly pushing the All Blacks back, shutting down any little half gap and forcing Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett to chance their hand and put boot to ball.
The team that tore the Wallabies apart two weeks ago looked a mess and the Pumas pounced on every opportunity.
“We’ve started working on this for a long time and I think we are a great team,” Pumas captain Pablo Matera said post match. “We are a lot of new, young players arriving to the team and they’re putting a lot of energy. They really know what the jersey represents back in Argentina.
“We knew we could win this game, we just had to go to the pitch and take it; no one was going to give it to us so we just went there and knew we had everything to do it.
“We believe in ourselves and we have a lot of emotion and energy coming from different places — back home, it’s tough there at the moment. It was tough for us to get here to Australia, so we’re representing a lot of things. I think it was a blessing in the energy we put into the game.”
Only four minutes into the match and creeping their way into the All Blacks 22, Nicolas Sanchez went for a drop goal; they were going to take any chance they could at scoring points and while he missed the attempt, only minutes later they were on the board with a penalty goal, and for the rest of the match they continued to keep the scoreboard ticking.
Sanchez was the standout for the Pumas, scoring every one of his side’s points, and executing the Pumas’ game plan to perfection. Rightly, he was named man of the match for his game-winning efforts.
“We felt Nico was in a very good place since he got here,” Pumas coach Mario Ledesma said. “Even before the chats we had at the beginning of the year.
“You don’t just come out here and perform like that because of some magic formula. You prepare yourself to be successful; he was spot on with the game plan, so we felt that he could perform like that, but he was in a very good place.”
The work from Matera shouldn’t be ignored. He was dogged in defence; making huge tackles and was a nuisance at the breakdown, securing a turnover only metres from his own line. In attack he was just as impressive, busting tackles and hitting the line hard.
The journey the Pumas took to get to this moment was incredible. In a country that’s been ravaged by COVID-19, players spent over 100 days training in their own homes. Sanchez ran 21km inside his house, while others practiced scrummaging and lineouts with their fathers. Upon arrival in Australia, they were forced to quarantine and train within the building — undertaking defence training inside the hotel’s conference room. In spite of these challenges, the Pumas were nothing short of spectacular, bringing tears to their coach’s and fans’ eyes.
— Los Pumas (@lospumas) November 13, 2020
“Even playing that game was surreal for us,” Ledesma said. “The boys get on the field after everything that’s happened to us this in year in Argentina, and it’s even happening now, so just getting out there and playing like they did, I would have said the same even if they’d lost. I would have been disappointed, but as proud as I am right now.”
As the Pumas rightly celebrate a win for the history books, the All Blacks will be lamenting what could or should have been. For the first time in nine years, New Zealand have recorded back-to-back loses, while Ian Foster has the worst win rate — just 40 per cent — by an All Blacks coach after five Tests since 1949.
Despite this, Foster said he’s not feeling the pressure.
“I guess this role always comes with pressure,” Foster said post match.
“But I think what happened in the game is we saw a team that everyone said their disadvantage was they hadn’t played a lot of rugby, but I think their camp — their three weeks together and their two games — they’ve come in here with massive energy and I think probably a massive desire to prove something for their country, who’ve gone through a heck of a hard time.
“It’s a historic day for them, while it’s deeply disappointing for us, it’s massively exciting for them and I guess it’s a big congratulations from us to Mario and his team for what they’ve achieved.”
Facing the waiting media post match with tears in his eyes, the ecstasy from the win was clear to see on Ledesma’s face. He said it’s one of his finest moments in rugby.
“I think we’ll remember this for a long time coming,” he said. “Not only because of the game, but also the special situation that got us to the game. I guess somebody will write a book about it.”
Even if the Pumas fail to win another match in this Tri-Nations, it won’t matter. They arrived in Australia essentially filling in the numbers, written off and underprepared, but now will be returning home after making history with one of the greatest wins the rugby world has ever seen.